Economics and finance, Government and governance, International relations, Law | Asia, East Asia, The World

8 January 2019

Same-sex marriage in Taiwan and nuclear power in South Korea highlight the shifting political sands in both countries, Byung-Seong Min writes.

Current global trends indicate that conservatism is gaining momentum over liberalism. Trump-led conservatism in the US and Brexit in the UK, as well as similar shifts towards protectionism in France and Germany, are evidence of this.

Taiwan and South Korea are both trade-oriented economic giants in Asia. Despite geographic proximity, however, the two seem to be heading in different directions in their political ideology.

Taiwan’s election in November resulted in an overwhelming victory for the conservative Kuomintang party (KMT) against the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP’s crushing defeat was worsened by the election result in Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan and one not expected to vote for the KMT in a majority. In the wake of the result, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced her resignation as head of the DPP.

Along with the election for government, Taiwan also voted on the policies surrounding two controversial issues: same-sex marriage and nuclear-power plants. Taiwanese voters supported the conservative party by rejecting both same-sex marriage and the denuclearisation plan.

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In no Asian country is same-sex marriage legal as of yet. The Taiwanese Constitutional Court made the decision in May 2017 to support freedom of marriage. This gave the LGBT community hope for the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Taiwan’s LGBT community also participated in the 2018 Paris Gay Games under their national flag – defying the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) One-China policy – to which the Chinese government responded with fury.

Yet despite the court’s ruling, approximately seven million Taiwanese voters spurned the possibility of legalising same-sex marriage. Strong opposition from the Christian community, both domestically and internationally, may have been a driving force behind the rejection of the proposal.

Whatever the reason, the defeat of the DPP inevitably changes Taiwanese relations with China. The DPP’s policies that push for independence from Beijing and the establishment of its own identity would have cost them supporters.

This may reflect Taiwan’s general will to avoid escalated tensions with the CCP. To the CCP, Taiwan will always remain as the Republic of China, not an independent Taiwan.

Similar to Taiwan, South Korea has been confronted by a northerly communist regime since 1945. Korean politics and political ideology have been heavily influenced by conflict with the North. However, Korea’s political landscape has changed substantially since the last presidential election which transferred political powers from long-standing conservatism to liberalism.

More on this: Moon's popularity in a liberal South Korea

South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, has pursued various radical policies since 2017 when he took over government after the impeachment of former President Park, aided by the Candlelight Revolution.

The Moon Government has driven policies to phase out nuclear power plants and has implemented various pro-union policies such as shortening work hours – limiting it to 52 hours a week – and converting contracted employees to permanent ones, as well as sharply increasing the minimum wage.

Moon’s policy to dismantle existing nuclear power plants and ban the construction of new ones – in an attempt to phase out the industry over the next four decades – has been challenged by opposition parties and some experts in the field.

About one-third of the nation’s electricity comes from its 24 reactors, and nuclear energy was a strategic priority for the past conservative government, as evidenced by the four nuclear reactors exported to the UAE worth approximately USD $20 billion.

The increase in minimum wage, however, has been broadly supported as current levels are relatively low compared to the country’s OECD peers. But the degree to which this is implemented has been a point of contention.

The minimum wage increased by 16.4 per cent in 2018 – more than double the 7.3 per cent increase in 2017. The government plans to continue raising it up to 70 per cent of the median wage by 2020. By then, the minimum wage would be higher than many other major OECD economies.

Moon’s popularity has allowed him to pursue these liberal policies, although his support has dropped from a high of 70 per cent to around 50 per cent now. This drop was largely due to sluggish economic growth and the difficulties affecting small and medium enterprises.

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Regardless, Moon is praised by many for his contributions to mitigating military tensions in the Korean peninsula. He has also acted as the middleman between North Korea and the US. Consequently, his popularity depends highly on the success of the interactions between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, as well as those between the two Korean governments.

Both Taiwan and South Korea have experienced political leadership grounded in newly empowered liberalism – whether that be in the past or present. The former has retaliated with traditional convictions, while the latter is using it to fight back pre-existing conservatism.

Korean economic forecasts don’t look good, partly due to China-US trade wars and partly because of Moon’s policies. Given the potential sluggish growth, the magnitude of challenges against liberal policies may depend on the re-election of Donald Trump – both directly, through the influence of conservatism, and indirectly, through the success of denuclearisation in the North and its impact on Moon’s popularity.

Though Taiwan’s national election also took place during a period of poor economic performance, its results are more indicative of a failure in liberalistic ideologies than an independent rise of conservative sentiments. In wake of the DPP’s losses and Beijing’s ever-strengthening push for unification, the country faces much political and social uncertainty.

Over the coming year, we’ll get a sense of how these drastic shifts will manifest on the political spectrum. Only then will we have a clearer idea of what lies ahead for both countries.

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